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Britain Defies U.S. on Gag Rule
I t is obvious that nothing good is happening domestically on reproductive rights. Internationally, however, a small bright spot appeared in mid-February when Britain’s Department for International Development announced that it would contribute $5.3 million to organizations that have been denied family planning money because of the Mexico City policy, i.e., the Global Gag Rule.
According to Population Action International (PAI), the Gag Rule, first imposed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, rescinded by Bill Clinton in 1993, and re-imposed by George W. Bush in 2001, has forced some family planning clinics to close and has led to staff reduction and cutbacks as well as fee hikes for reproductive health services throughout much of the world. In addition, PAI reports that “family planning organizations that reject the Gag Rule have been unable to obtain donated contraceptives on which the women and men they serve depend.” PAI researchers also found that in the five years since Bush reinstituted the Gag Rule, numerous countries have seen their healthcare referral networks collapse. Furthermore, reductions in technical assistance, as well as the loss of condoms previously supplied by U.S. agencies, have had a deleterious impact not just on pregnancy rates, but on STD transmission.
British Development Minister Gareth Thomas told the press that the grant would provide start-up funds to the Global Safe Abortion Program developed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPN). The need, he announced, is blatant and replacing lost financing for reproductive healthcare has been long in coming. Thomas described the more than 19 million illegal abortions that occur worldwide each year and told reporters that between 70,000 and 76,000 women, most of them young and poor, die from sepsis and hemorrhaging directly linked to unsafe surgeries. “The Global Safe Abortion Program will work to support abortion and improve access to abortion services and will help those groups that have been forced to cut back on reproductive health services,” he said. “Maternal deaths represent one of the starkest indicators of inequality within, and between, rich and poor nations. Much more must be done to ensure that those most vulnerable have access to the care and services they need.”
The Gag Rule has long rankled international activists because it prohibits the State Department and USAID, the world’s largest financier of family planning and women’s health services, from giving monies to non-governmental organizations that perform abortions—unless the abortion is needed to save the pregnant woman’s life or is to end a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest—or that counsel women about their options or refer them to abortion providers. Organizations that accept money from the U.S. are further barred from lobbying to make abortion legal or working to make the procedure more accessible in nations where it is already lawful.
“Family planning is a key entry point for many women to health care,” says Shirine Mohagheghpour, assistant director of Planned Parenthood Global Partners. This is why she and her colleagues are thrilled by Britain’s decision. Furthermore, she is delighted that Britain is stepping in to fill the gap because Britain is typically seen as a U.S. ally. “This is an interesting challenge to the U.S., a very public slap in the face. Britain is saying, ‘We cannot abide by women dying from the lack of family planning.’ Because of the strong relationship between Britain and the U.S. government on other fronts, this is a fascinating distancing move,” she says.
Mohagheghpour met scores of young people in Tanzania and Uganda who described their desire for contraceptives and documented their inability to get them. “I heard teenagers say that they’d finally mustered up the nerve to go to a clinic only to be told that the facility had run out of condoms.”
Laura Katzive, Deputy Director of the International Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, agrees and hopes the new money will reinvigorate debate in countries where activists have not been able to advocate abortion because of the Gag Rule. “There has been a climate of censorship, a chilling effect, since the policy was reinstated,” she says. “It has inhibited many NGOs from taking a position on abortion which makes it much harder to have an open dialogue.”
What’s more, Katzive believes the Gag Rule censors abortion proponents by making it impossible for them to talk about overturning restrictive policies. On the other hand, she says that the deck is stacked because those who favor abortion bans or limits on access can openly speak their minds without fear of offending U.S. grant-givers. “Kenya is in the midst of a heated abortion debate,” Katzive says. “It is illegal there except for life endangerment. The Gag Rule has stifled reproductive health providers from participating in the process.”
International health activists repeatedly stress the impact that fear of financial reprisals has on the provision of medical care throughout much of the world. For example, Katzive explains, directors of one USAID-funded project in Africa became intimidated shortly after the Rule was reinstated and scaled back their efforts to promote post-abortion care. Although the group continues to provide the service, it is no longer advertised on their website and the staff cancelled the community education component of the program. Clinics in Central and South America and in other parts of Africa have taken similar actions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has not publicly acknowledged Britain’s move to replace lost USAID monies, but Bush’s 2007 budget includes $357 million for international family planning, $79 million less than was included in fiscal 2006.
A bipartisan group of pro-choice Congresspeople recently introduced the Global Democracy Promotion Act, an annual effort, which would add $600 million to USAID’s 2007 funding allocation to “support contraceptive procurement, logistical support, training, and integration with HIV/AIDS activities in developing countries.” Supporters say passage would help fill the “decency gap” that exists because of the Global Gag Rule.
Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer and the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).
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